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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, August 20, 2001

'Silver ceiling' traps boomers

USA Today

Laid off this year from a high-tech firm, public relations manager Judy Piercey expected to land another job quickly.

With more than 15 years in the business, the 49-year-old considered herself experienced.

Potential employers just considered her old.

Like more baby boomers today, Piercey found herself grappling with a new and daunting barrier: the so-called silver ceiling.

Worrying that employers saw her age as a liability rather than an asset, Piercey left her college graduation date off her resume and noted she had more than 10 years of experience instead of 15.

She got a job, but she also got a lesson in how layoffs and job cuts are putting her generation's careers at risk.

"I have two kids in college, and at my age, I get anxious," says Piercey, who is now a public relations manager at San Diego-based Kintera, a provider of Internet marketing services for non-profits. "I feel like I'm in my prime, but when employers see my age, they say, 'She's 49, she won't fit into the culture,' and 'We can get someone younger at a lower salary.' It's in the back of everybody's minds."

The economic slowdown is hitting baby boomers hard. For some, pink slips are obliterating careers that have taken decades to build. Doors of opportunity are being shuttered, salaries are slipping, and the generation that faced the Vietnam War and civil rights protests is now encountering age bias for the first time.

That's because boomers are reaching an age that typically bears the brunt of economic hard times. Silver-haired employees often have more experience, but that also means their fatter salaries make them targets in a cost-cutting wave. Even those now employed have reason to worry because a job loss can be devastating to this demographic group.

Those now at risk: the more than 75 million American boomers born from 1946 through 1964, the oldest of whom are now reaching their mid-50s.

Consider the following:

More older workers are losing their jobs. The number of unemployed workers age 55 and older has jumped about 23 percent, from 431,000 in June 2000 to 521,000 in June of this year, according to the Department of Labor.

Compare them with unemployed workers age 20 to 24 years old, who've seen unemployment increase 10 percent during that same time.

Many of these older workers tend to be in higher-paying, professional jobs, government statistics show, where it can be difficult to find comparable jobs at similar pay scales.

Job hunts take longer and yield lower-paying jobs. While the median job search time is 3.3 months, workers over 50 take almost twice as long to identify and get a new professional role than workers who are 30 or younger, according to a yet-to-be-released survey by Drake Beam Morin. The study also found that as workers age, their salary prospects plateau and eventually decrease.

Age discrimination is on the rise. Charges of age discrimination filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission jumped from about 14,000 in fiscal year 1999 to 16,000 last year.

Nearly 60 percent of executives believe age discrimination in hiring has increased during the past five years, according to a July survey by senior executive search and networking firm ExecuNet.

Companies recently hit with age-discrimination lawsuits include Lucent Technologies, Ford Motor and auto parts supplier Visteon.

'Bias to younger workers'

"The older we are, the more difficult it is to make adjustments in our careers. It's difficult to see our culture has a bias to younger workers," says Inger Jensen, a business and personal coach in Beverly Hills, Calif. "Baby boomers thought they were going to change the world, and all of a sudden, there's a new generation coming up and pushing them aside. There's a feeling of betrayal, a loss of self-esteem."

Take Linda Boggs, who found herself laid off in March after 13 years of working at a steel plant in Warren, Ohio. At 42, it's the end of a way of life. Jobs in the industry are hard to find. Boggs is planning to go back to school to learn computer and technology skills — a seismic career shift that she says is much harder to take now.

"It's just much harder to start over when you're older," Boggs says. "I'm nervous. I've never not worked before."

Or consider Michael Spitalnik, 57, of New York, a former vice president of sales for an Internet ad network company. He left that company to join a wireless media firm, which changed its business focus and closed its East Coast office.

He's decided to start a sales contracting business out of his house, which will enable him to spend time with his daughter, 11-year-old Maya. With his wife, Irit, working, he can afford to take the financial risk for a little while.

'Old enough to be my father'

"Here I was, out of work, and the job market had gotten worse," Spitalnik says. "I am 57 years old. Even though there are laws about it, age discrimination exists. I don't understand it, I don't understand it at all. Employers say, 'I don't relate to people that old,' or 'That guy is old enough to be my father.' The general feeling is, it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks."

The news is not all grim. Some older workers are dodging the bullet because they're leaving the work force altogether. The oldest boomers are 55, which is when pension eligibility often begins. In 1999, 83 percent of men and 66 percent of women who were 55 were in the labor force, according to the Department of Labor statistics.

Others are avoiding layoff woes because more employers are offering early retirement plans. This year, thousands of workers have been offered early retirement buyouts at companies such as Lucent Technologies, General Motors and Procter & Gamble.

And several who fear being pushed out are using the economic downturn as a chance to embark on new jobs or careers. About 5 percent of boomers envision retirement as a chance to work full time at a new job or career, and 17 percent envision it as a chance to start their own businesses, according to a study by AARP.

But for those who don't want to leave, shifting gears can be tough. Boomers are being interviewed by managers who are nearly half their age.

They're going back to school or launching their own businesses at an age when many expected to glide toward retirement. And they're taking jobs at lower salaries, sliding down the career ladder after so many years of going up.

Job loss is hard on everyone, but experts say that today's older workers are especially vulnerable.

Many need an income, because they'll live longer than any generation before. (According to the National Center for Health Statistics, a person born during the baby boom year of 1957 has a life expectancy of about 70 at birth. That's up to 15 years longer than their parents' generation).

They need an income because they're more likely to be a part of the so-called "sandwich generation," meaning they're strained financially by caring for children and older parents at the same time.

And they need an income because many are facing steep bills and scant savings. About 75 percent of baby boomers say they need to reduce their debt, according to a survey by Yankelovich, a provider of research and consulting services. More than 70 percent need to pay off credit card balances.

The boomer age group will be a vital — if diminished — part of the labor force in the future. Work opportunities will exist. The question is just what kind of opportunities those will be.

Debra Neitzel, 40, of Jacksonville, Fla., found herself laid off after nearly eight years of doing human resource management for an insurance firm.

She took another job, even though it was a step down from her previous position, but that company laid her off, too. She's thrilled with her new job as a human resource director at a retirement community, but says the whole process taught her a vital lesson others may just be learning.

"No one," she says, "wants to pay for experience anymore."